Sunday, October 23, 2011

Summer 2011: Kibbutz Lahav, Israel

August 1-17, 2011 -- The whole reason for my trip abroad this past summer was to work at a kibbutz in Israel. After traveling by train across Europe and spending some time in Tel Aviv, I was assigned to Kibbutz Lahav near Beersheba in southern Israel.

Lahav, founded in 1952, has the unique distinction of being Israel's only Jewish-run pig farm, which makes it controversial among the religious community. The unkosher kibbutz raises pigs through the Animal Research Institute, where innovative medical research is performed on the animals that are anatomically very similar to humans. The surplus pigs are supplied to Lahav's meat processing plant to be sold to non-kosher food stores across Israel.

Upon arriving by bus from Tel Aviv, my first impression was that Lahav is located in one of the most ideal climates in Israel. It never got too hot during the day or too cold at night and even though Lahav is technically in the northern frontier of the Negev desert, it is surrounded by Lahav Forest. The man-made forest was first planted in the same year Lahav was founded and today the towering pines cover 6,750 acres. The trees regulate the temperature and provide fresh air to the kibbutz, except when the wind changes direction and you get a whiff of all that pig manure. After experiencing the unbearable heat and humidity of Tel Aviv and the scorching sun of Mitzpe Ramon in the dry heat of the Negev desert, I appreciated the arid climate of Lahav.

Walking around the kibbutz for the first time also gave me the impression of a land that time forgot. There are rusted old abandoned buildings and buses and farm equipment that looked like they hadn't been touched since the early 1970s. The old buildings and vehicles provide a striking contrast to the new homes being built for kibbutzniks and the functioning buildings like the cafeteria, kolbo (grocery store), library and gym. The kibbutz has actually made an artistic installation out of the rusted metal structures.

I washed dishes and scrubbed pots and pans for two-and-a-half weeks before heading south to Mitzpe Ramon in the heart of the Negev desert for the next leg of my journey. I worked every day except Shabbat Saturdays.  A typical day consisted of waking up at 7 a.m. and walking to the cafeteria to set up the dish washing machine and fill up the tub with water and soap for scrubbing pots and pans. The busy times were during and after lunch when we had to clean the dishes, trays, silverware and cups at a furious pace to keep the conveyer running smoothly for the kibbutzniks. Then we had to scrub the pots and pans from the kitchen and cafeteria, which could really start piling up fast. We usually finished up around 2:30 or 3 p.m. and had the rest of the day to relax and play at the outdoor pool, work out at the gym or jog around the perimeter. The evenings were spent either making a bonfire and listening to music at the volunteer center or hitching a ride down the road to Kibbutz Dvir, where there is a unique mushroom-shaped pub that looks like something straight out of Super Mario World.

Lahav is a self-contained world and is somewhat isolated so when volunteers need a break from kibbutz life there is a private shuttle or public bus that takes you to the "Capital of the Negev," Beersheba. This ancient city is home to Abraham's Well, the Old City,  a modern shopping center, Ben Gurion University and much more. We also went on a bike ride around the Lahav Forest and discovered fortified bunkers, caves and trenches that must have been used in either the 1948 War of Independence or the 1967 Six-Day War since Lahav is less than a mile from the 1949 Armistice Line, otherwise known as the Green Line. From the top of the hill in Lahav Forest you can see the Hebron Hills and the secular Jewish settlement of Eshkolot next to the Bedouin Arab village of Ramidin -- both located on the other side of the security fence.

It must be said that kibbutzim have dramatically changed since the early days of pioneering Israelis cultivating the land into utopian agricultural communities firmly rooted in socialist and Zionist principles. In order for the kibbutzim to survive over the decade sadly they have been forced to privatize and outsource the field work to Thai workers. The kibbutz is but a shadow of its former self as private industry has sapped the soul of the kibbutznik. My experience at Lahav in this regard was quite disappointing. Where has the socialist idealism gone to? What happened to the Zionistic spirit? Why are the hard-working young volunteers from across the world treated like slave labor instead of important contributors to strengthening the land of Israel? These are difficult questions with no easy answers. But something has been lost along the way. The kibbutz has turned into everything it was against and that is a real shame.

There is not even much Jewish life at Lahav, which I suppose is to be expected when pork schnitzels are served for dinner. Shabbat dinner in the cafeteria is just like any other dinner except for a table near the entrance with candles and a loaf of bread. The place is spiritually empty. I couldn't wait to get to Jerusalem to quench my spiritual thirst for Kabbalat Shabbat and some real Judaism after the secular trappings of Lahav.

The catalyst for leaving Lahav was the first rocket attack from Gaza since April. The attack occurred on August 15 at around 11:30 p.m. while most of the kibbutzniks and volunteers were asleep. I was trying to get to sleep when I heard the air raid siren go off and I walked out of my dorm room and looked around to see if anyone was walking or running to the bomb shelter that was located only a few hundred feet from my front door. The barking dogs were the only ones who were excited so I thought it surely must be a drill if no one was in a hurry to get to to the underground shelters. I was wrong. I walked over to the volunteer center and about five minutes after the siren had started I heard two loud explosions. Boom! Boom! Two rockets fired from the Gaza Strip by Palestinian terrorists had landed in an open area only 4.3 miles (6.9 km) from Kibbutz Lahav.

In the Beersheba area there is a five-minute window between when the sirens sound and the rockets land. Compare this to Sderot --a southern Israeli city that is less than a mile from the Gaza Strip and where citizens have only 15 seconds to reach shelter after the sounding of the alarm. So there is ample time in Lahav for a family to take safe shelter instead of staying home and taking the chance of a lethal rocket ripping through the roof and exploding on the bed they are laying on. Even if statistically the chances of a direct hit are small, why take the unnecessary risk? Only five days after these rocket attacks a Grad Katyusha rocket killed 38-year-old Yossi Shushan of Ofakim, who was worried about his 9-month pregnant wife after hearing air raid sirens and went to Beersheba to be with her. An earlier rocket attack that day scored a direct hit on a house in Ofakim, injuring a four-month-old baby and nine-year-old boy.

So yes, the deadly rockets can and do directly hit houses and buildings. So again, why not take shelter? "Israelis are fatalistic. Israelis are tough. What will be will be. When it is my time it is my time." Those were the typical responses when I asked why no one used the bomb shelters scattered around Kibbutz Lahav. And there was no training for the volunteers like myself who would prefer to be in a bomb shelter when a rocket attack occurs. A proper training session would have ensured that volunteers who value their personal safety would have taken shelter that night instead of wrongly thinking it was a drill.

I am proud to support a country that follows the Talmudic teaching that "whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world." This was on display to the world when kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit was brought home in a prisoner exchange with Hamas after five years of captivity in Gaza. It was an emotional moment of unity for an often divided nation. I just wish Israelis would value their own lives by taking advantage of those bomb shelters when the siren sounds!

Great times were had and many friendships made at Lahav with the awesome volunteers from around the world. Hebrew, German, Russian, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Czech and Slovak were the native tongues but we all overcame our at times divisive histories and bonded in English. For a brief moment our nationalities didn't matter and we were all Kibbutz Lahav volunteers united by our shared humanity as the bonfire flames danced and we danced under the stars of the northern Negev desert. The people made the journey, however brief it was, completely worthwhile. I will forever treasure the many amazing experiences -- the Lahav Forest by bike, trips to the ancient city of Beersheba, visiting the mushroom-shaped pub at nearby Kibbutz Dvir, relaxing poolside after a hard day's work, learning to tolerate the at-times difficult kibbutzniks and even experiencing the rocket attack from Gaza.

Kibbutz Lahav was one of the most challenging environments I've ever been in. It was an amazing experience that I'll never forget.

Thank you to all the volunteers and kibbutzniks at Lahav for making my time there a memorable one.

Here are more pictures from Kibbutz Lahav. Click here to see the set on Flickr.

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